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Baker warns of halting process for unfreezing Mass. economy in face of coronavirus

People wore masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus as they walked past tulips in bloom in the Boston Public Garden on Sunday.
People wore masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus as they walked past tulips in bloom in the Boston Public Garden on Sunday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker warned Monday that restarting Massachusetts’ dormant economy will be a halting process that extends far beyond May 18, the day his order closing thousands of businesses is set to expire — suggesting residents should prepare for a methodical return that puts safety ahead of speed.

Baker’s comments at a State House news conference were followed almost immediately by a planned protest outside the historic building, where hundreds of people packed tightly together demanding he lift the restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

At different points, the crowd — estimated by State Police at 500 people — chanted, “It’s a hoax! It’s a hoax!” and repeated a version of a President Trump campaign slogan, “It’s time to make America great again,” in unison. And a local conservative radio host there belittled the virus as a “contagious flu at the absolute worst.”

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The disparate messages of caution and dismissal came as the state reported another 1,000 coronavirus cases and 86 deaths, pushing the state’s death toll to 4,090 people. At 69,087 reported cases, Massachusetts trails only New York and New Jersey in the size of statewide outbreaks, one that has hit the state’s elder care and nursing home population with particularly deadly results.

The state reported 3,539 hospitalizations as of Sunday, down from a peak of 3,965 on April 21. The seven-day average of coronavirus tests that have come back positive, a measure that is being closely watched by officials and experts, continued to decline, dropping to 16 percent.

Boston officials said Monday that nearly 600 homeless people in the city have also tested positive, including two who have died, and there are 9,900 confirmed COVID-19 cases citywide.

Baker, who has repeatedly preached vigilance in extending or tightening restrictions on daily life, on Monday painted a picture of a long road ahead. The Republican governor said the discussion about increasing testing for the virus will continue “for months to come,” and the threat of transmission “be with us for a very long time.”

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“I don’t want to bring this thing back. You know, whatever we do here, I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Baker said, signaling his worry about an explosion of new infections.

“It’s also important to remember — and I can’t stress this enough — that as long as there is no vaccine, we’re going to have to be talking about how to do this in a way that makes the most sense and can be done most safely across all sectors of our economy,” he added.

Polls and surveys have shown that the vast majority of people approve of how Baker has handled the pandemic.

Baker last week extended his order closing so-called nonessential businesses, along with a stay-at-home advisory, until May 18. But both he and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, who’s helping lead an advisory board examining how to reopen the economy, stressed that the date is only a beginning of the slow trudge toward a more regular pace of daily life and business.

Polito, who with the advisory board has met with nearly two dozen industry groups and coalitions, said that some have framed the discussion as if “May 18 is some magical date.” But it’s then the board will release its report recommending how to begin allowing businesses to restart operations, and that some sectors of the economy will naturally be more prepared to do so than others.

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“It doesn’t mean the economy across our Commonwealth will just reopen," Polito said. "It’s just not possible, as everyone knows.”

Added Baker: “There won’t be anyone firing a starting gun on May 18 and saying everybody is off to the races.”

Baker also expressed frustration that as he’s repeatedly emphasized the importance of expanding testing, there’s been resistance. Without offering details, he suggested that even includes officials within his own administration.

“We’ve had to discipline some people for not being tested in places where they should probably be tested,” Baker said.

Baker refused to identify who, and his office did not respond to repeated questions after the news briefing about which types of workers had been punished, or how.

“The fact of the matter is not everybody wants to be tested, even people who you would think would consider that to be an appropriate thing, given their role and their responsibility,” Baker said.

Outside the State House, a rally promoted by the right-wing provocateurs behind last September’s controversial Straight Pride Parade and conservative local radio host Jeffrey Kuhner were busy taking over a section of Beacon Street.

The protest began as vehicles and motorcycles circled the State House, with drivers honking their horns, chanting with megaphones, and blasting music. Crowds initially gathered on each side of Beacon Street until a portion of the road was closed by police and people flooded into a tightly packed mass.

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Demonstrators brandished American flags and Trump 2020 signs, along with signs that read: “End the shutdown,” “All jobs are essential,” and “Media is the virus.”

Super Happy Fun America, the group behind the 2019 Straight Pride Parade that drew more counterprotesters than participants, identified itself as one of the rally’s hosts.

“I’m not going to sugar coat this, America is committing national suicide," Kuhner said to the crowd. “I see churches closed, I see an economic collapse, thousands of businesses bankrupt and shuttered — all of this for a lousy virus? For a contagious flu at the absolute worst? This is not a pandemic.”

Kuhner charged that the “illegal, unconstitutional lockdown” was orchestrated by public officials who don’t want President Trump to be reelected. The crowd’s reaction and Trump 2020 attire suggested that they agreed.

"Many in the media want to cover this up but they can’t. We have exposed them, we know what is really behind this," Kuhner said. "The whole thing is a giant hoax — crash the economy to bring down the president."

Doctors, infectious disease specialists, and other experts have consistently described the coronavirus pandemic as considerably more dangerous than seasonal influenza, and one sometimes spread through asymptomatic carriers.

Baker cited that threat in requiring that all residents cover their faces when they shop for groceries, take public transportation, or even go for a jog if they can’t distance themselves from others, under a statewide order that takes effect Wednesday.

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And officials and public health experts have repeatedly cautioned that prematurely abandoning social distancing guidelines would inevitably lead to a spike in new coronavirus infections and deaths.

Many of the protesters were not wearing face masks as they stood shoulder to shoulder outside the State House’s front gate.

Janine Largent of North Reading said she and her daughter recently recovered from COVID-19. She said the virus is “scary, but there is also fear mongering — it is looking like a planned agenda."

“We need to go back [to work] but now people are terrified,” she said on a side street in Beacon Hill as she left the rally.

Elsewhere at the State House, Democratic and Republican leaders in the House reached, and passed, an agreement on emergency rules that will allow the chamber to hold remote voting, perhaps as early as Wednesday.

The new package followed days of heated, partisan debate after House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones had blocked passage of the rules, arguing that they effectively limit how often most representatives would be allowed to speak.

He had accused House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo of using the crisis to “achieve more power,” while DeLeo lashed out at what he called the Republicans’ “recklessness and fiscal irresponsibility.” The House can’t pass a bill giving the state more flexibility in borrowing money unless the House holds a formal vote.

Democratic leaders ultimately amended the rules to allow some Republicans, including Jones, more chances to speak during legislative debates.

Travis Andersen, Danny McDonald, and Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.